If we accept the premise that Saturday’s overtime loss to the lottery-bound Hornets was indeed “rock bottom” for the 2012-2013 Dallas Mavericks then a moment of reflection is in order.
How did the Mavs get here and what is the path forward?
The answer to the former is obvious and already well chronicled. Indeed, these are the results of both Dallas’ decision to allow the cogs around Nowitzki to sign elsewhere and Nowitzki’s early-season knee injury. We can speculate where the team would be had Nowitzki not been injured, but none of that is very helpful or certain. A healthy Nowitzki undoubtedly would have made a sizable impact on Dallas’ outcomes, and perhaps with a fully-functional Nowitzki, Dallas would be sitting inside the West’s top eight.
What is certain, however, is that Cuban’s plan to pursue financial flexibility amidst a changing NBA landscape seems to be drawing more criticism than ever. Letting popular players go will always be difficult for a fanbase to swallow. This pill was made all the more bitter on the heels of those players’ (particularly, Dirk's) greatest success in June of 2011.
We’ve debated the merits of this plan many times before, however, let me inject some nuance into this debate. With any big gamble, where outcomes are uncertain, the ability to separate the merits of the plan itself from the outcomes produced becomes possible. That is, poor results are not sufficient, by themselves, to call this plan a failure.
However, the results are poor indeed. Since Cuban’s decision almost 13 months ago, Dallas is 49-51 in the regular season. The team has not won a playoff game since Game 6 of the 2011 Finals. Dallas has the third-worst point differential in the Western Conference and the sixth-worst differential in the entire league. Injury aside, Nowitzki is having his two worst shooting seasons of his career outside of his rookie year.
The plan to allow Nowitzki to transition into a second-tier player in the twilight of his career is happening – just without the other superstar around him to take the mantle. The Mavericks' play is suffering, with a band of short-timing castoffs surrounding the legend.
So where to go from here? That answer has both a short term and long term component.
Short term, the franchise will do what it has always done: go out every night with the intent to win. Barring catastrophic injury to Nowitzki, Mayo, or Collison, the three most valuable members of this team (in that order) Dallas will likely not seriously entertain the thought of tanking to improve lottery draft stock.
Cuban’s stated target is still the playoffs. So there will likely be no course-correction of that goal until it eludes the team's reach.
Per ESPN’s Marc Stein
, GM’s around the league believe the Mavericks are “one of the teams most eager to do business between now and the Feb. 21 trade deadline.” Yes, the most available difference-maker rumored to be available is Demarcus Cousins, but there conflicting reports circulating that now have him possibly headed to Boston, and still others which feature the Kings completely denying his availability.
Regardless, Dallas may struggle to put together a package that both appeals to the Kings and leaves the Mavericks markedly better after consummation.
Perhaps Dallas can pull a move from its old wheelhouse: absorbing a bad contract. In an extremely-honest interview with Tim MacMahon
, Dirk said “Maybe Cuban has something up his sleeve. Maybe you have to take a chance on a bad contract to get him in here and make something happen. I mean, I don't know.”
The long-term outlook is much murkier, and gloomier. The original targets of Dallas’ plan for cap space, Dwight Howard and Chris Paul, will both again be free agents. Further, Dallas is still in a position to sign both, provided they can find a landing spot for Marion. The only other team on the NBA landscape poised to make a play for both Howard and Paul is the Atlanta Hawks, but they were not the stated desired destination of both Paul and Howard when they conspired to join up in Dallas a few seasons ago
As we saw last offseason with the ill-fated Deron Williams chase, it is highly difficult to pry a superstar from a destination market, especially when said destination market has the built-in advantage of being able to offer a longer contract.
Dirk, himself, echoed as much after Saturday’s loss (all quotes courtesy of ESPNDallas). “We hoped for Deron last year. We hoped for Dwight. Why would he leave the Lakers? To me, it makes no sense. He's in a great situation. Why would CP3 leave? [The Los Angeles Clippers are] the best team in the league probably right now. They're probably the deepest team. So are you going to hope that we get something?”
So where is this team going, Dirk, and what of the team mentality in the wake of Plan Powder? “It's going to be tough now," Nowitzki said after the loss to the Hornets. "I always liked to think you don't want to build your franchise on hope.”
“We knew that coming in, that eight or nine new guys on one-year deals is not really an ideal situation, but what else is there to do? So either you break the whole thing up and trade me, or you get a bunch of one-year deals and try to be a player next summer. That's the decision we made, so now we've got to fight through it."
Thinking like a GM, Dirk is essentially outlining the Mavs’ options more than advocating that he be traded. He would go on to clarify, "the only reason I would leave -- or would have left -- is if we wouldn't have won the championship, and I would have been like a Karl Malone and [Gary] Payton going to join Kobe and Shaq in L.A. like they did at the end," Nowitzki said. "But now I've got a ring and obviously want to finish my career here. But I also want to be competitive."
So there is no reason to believe that this is the origin of some exodus for Dirk. What he is doing, however, is illustrating just how painted-in to a corner Dallas seems to be, filtered through the emotions of a crushing home defeat against a cellar-dweller.
Now, the cupboard is comparatively barren and the options for roster improvement are limited to trading expiring contracts to others seeking financial freedom, the draft, and free agency. With the limited market for the former, and the crapshoot (at best) that is the NBA draft, Dallas’s best chance lies in free agency.
With their season, and franchise direction, at a cross roads, Dallas faces a difficult uphill battle on two fronts based on dim, yet still possible outcomes.
In the short term, the playoffs remain a possibility and therefore, Dallas will continue to fight every night to make that a reality. In the long term, free agency acquisitions remain the most straightforward option, as Howard and Paul may yet still decide to unite in Dallas.
However, as Nowitzki mentioned, it’s probably best not to build too much on that hope.
Chuck Perry is even more passionate about the Mavericks than he is about Star Wars. Considering he recently tweeted this about Greivis Vasquez, that's saying something. Follow him on Twitter for plenty of both, at @TheChuckP.